The Surfing Life

Virginia Beach does not have big waves, but it does have a rich history of surfing—it’s where East Coast surfing got its start. An epic retrospective!

Boards in arms, three 20-somethings race their bikes along the north-south feeder road leading into the low-rise suburban sprawl of Virginia Beach’s North End. They speed past the balmy, low slung live oak grove and the frilly mimosa on an endless day of summer. Light northwesterlies coming off the coast hone clean the aquatic corduroy of a daybreak Atlantic, countering sideways with sideways—wind for swell. Drawing lines in their heads, visualizing the coming ride, they pedal in anticipation, full of psychic momentum before they’ve even touched the water. This is what they pray for—what we pray for.

In the grand scheme, Virginia Beach is not a place known for its epic surf. It doesn’t have the world-class waves of California or Hawaii, Australia, South Africa or Indonesia: a 300-mile fetch of energy sapping, swell-reducing shallows known as the Continental Shelf is the culprit. This could be a joy killer—but surfers at Virginia Beach take what we can get, and are (mostly) happy about it. It has been that way for a long time. We may not have the best waves but surfing here has a history—a formidable one that goes back 100 years and comprises multiple generations. And there is a story to go with the tradition—one of dedication by a handful of intrepid thrill-seekers in the early decades of the 20th century, and now, by modern throngs seeking their own form of pleasure or trendy recognition. Surfers here assiduously seek those small windows when the conditions are right; when light opposing winds complement a maximum swell at an optimum tide. It’s then that we grab our boards and hope not to get busted for missing work, skipping school or backing out of those plans to see a sweetheart.

As surf journalist Matt Warshaw points out, “The jaded and enervated surfers sprinkled throughout California are nearly impossible to find on the East Coast, where waist-high waves are often treated as a gift, not an insult.” Marty Keesecker, a Virginia Beach surfer and surfboard shaper of nearly 50 years, is even more pragmatic: “There is something to be said for tenacity,” he says. “If you put the time in, and you drive enough, you’ll find something to ride. If you’re patient and you don’t expect a lot, you’ll have fun and it’ll be enough to keep you in the water for an hour or so. In Virginia Beach, you can’t expect it come to you, you have to go to it.”

Not a great deal is known about the strange, imported coffin-like parcel Walter F. Irvin brought back east from Hawaii in 1912 that would signal the coming phenomenon known as surfing. Irvin’s consignment, which must have flummoxed terminal baggage handlers upon his disembarkation in Tidewater, was a 9-foot-long, 110-pound redwood olo, Hawaiian for longboard. It was a gift for Irvin’s young nephew, James M. Jordan Jr. According to brothers Jimmy and Shep Jordan in their 1974 book Virginia Beach: A Pictorial History, it was the first board of its kind on the East Coast: James M. Jordan Jr. was their grandfather. While the 1912 board was unique, it wasn’t the first hint of the sport of surfing. In the essay “A Royal Sport: Surfing in Waikiki,” published in a 1907 issue of The Lady’s Home Companion, adventure writer Jack London detailed the aquatic feats of early surf pioneer George Freeth and brought news of the Hawaiian art of wave riding to the new-century masses, writing: “I saw him tearing in on the back of a wave standing upright, with his board carelessly poised, a young god bronzed with sunburn.” Word spread.

In the years after he got his board, James M. Jordan Jr. would become famous in Virginia Beach for his exotic, arm-paddled watercraft and for his wave-riding abilities. At that time, most Easterners did not even swim, and so they must have regarded Jordan’s surfing for what it was—a spectacle to be noted with a whimsical shrug. Only in time would the locals realize that Jordan had staked a major claim: Virginia Beach was the birthplace of East Coast surfing. One might imagine the man and the oceanfront scene at that time: a lithe teen, soaked from the Gulf currents’ warmed brine, shoulder-hauling the deftly balanced olo in a terse sand-scrinching, midday jaunt from waterline back up to cottage line. Toweling off, considering the tides with a wince through the morning glare and the possibility of another go-out later, he hears “Come Josephine In My Flying Machine”—a 1911 hit song—crackling softly from a distant Victrola, the lyrics carried by summer breeze.

In the 1920s and 1930s, amidst the cedar shake grandeur of the Virginia Beach cottage-hotel era, each little redoubt had its own stationed lifeguard. During that time, enterprising individuals like Babe Braithewaite, Hugh Kitchin, Dusty Hinant, John Smith and Buddy Guy would be the first to organize a formal beach service of lifeguarding and chair/umbrella/float rentals along the Virginia Beach oceanfront. The occupation known as “beach bum” was a long way off, but essentially those guys were pioneers of the surfing and beach subculture that would become a craze in subsequent decades, culminating in the cheesy fun of the late 1950s to mid-1960s “Gidget” era.

Thanks to the design innovations of paddleboard maker Tom Blake, surfing was attracting new devotees. Blake, a Wisconsin native who moved to Hawaii in the mid-1920s, revolutionized surfing by making hollow boards that were much lighter than the traditional, solid redwood and olo boards Irvin brought from Hawaii in 1912. These new boards were much easier to carry and transport than the old ones, thus spawning surfing’s first micro boom. “Blake changed everything,” former Surfer Magazine editor Drew Kampion wrote in 2000. “He almost single-handedly transformed surfing from a primitive Polynesian curiosity into a 20th century lifestyle.”

And it wasn’t long before a new crop of lifeguard/surfers and fun addicts began heading to the oceanfront from Norfolk and various rural Princess Anne County communities. One of them was a Chesapeake Bay harbor pilot, Capt. Robert Barrett Holland, who would head one of the most prodigious surfing families the sport has ever known. His son Bob Lee has been a prominent member of the Virginia Beach surf scene for more than 70 years—from the 1930s to the present. Now in his 80s, Bob Lee Holland is still surfing—and notably not on “logs,” or the traditional longboards that are the preferred gear of the “old guys,” but on contemporary shortboards.

Bob Lee Holland’s children, Bobby, Johnny and Honey, all followed in their dad’s footsteps and set the bar for surfing performance and competition at the beach from the mid-1960s through the 1970s and beyond. Mary Sydney Barker, a niece, recalls that when she was very young, in the mid-1960s, “My grandfather, Capt. Holland, said to me, ‘When you can stand on an inflatable mat and ride the waves in, I will buy you your own surfboard.’ I surfed on the mats for a few years and when I was 12 he bought me my first surfboard—a 9-foot-2-inch Hobie. There weren’t many girl surfers around then; Becky ‘Bobby’ Mellot and I surfed at the North End with a girl named Leslie Thurston. We would surf in the mornings before the wind came up.”

Modern surfboards are very thin, short and relatively inexpensive—about $500 to $600. Contemporary surfers buy new boards fairly regularly. Jordan Brazie, a 23-year-old who has been surfing since he was 12, owns 11 boards and uses all of them—“whichever is the most functional for the waves of that day,” he says. “You have to have a quiver if you want to surf all year.”

But in the early days of the sport, boards were cherished items—hand-made and regarded more like boats. Surfers personalized them with artistic touches much like airmen created nose-art for World War I-and-II-era planes. Hugh Kitchins whitewashed the name “Hugh Boy” across his board from rail to rail. Capt. Robert Holland’s board was emblazoned with the twin flags insignia of the Chesapeake Bay Harbor Pilot Association.

My late father, a Norfolk native, was an avid Virginia Beach surfer in the 1940s and late 1950s. He handpainted the French word coquette (flirt), on his board in a two-tone gothic script. He began surfing when he was 15 and a lifeguard at the Cavalier Hotel and Beach Club on 43rd Street. The majestic old structure was built in 1929 (the same year brewery tycoon Adolph Coors threw himself from an upper floor), and of course it still stands today.

My father told me that he first surfed one blustery Sunday morning in December 1944. The night before, he and some friends, including fellow Norfolk native Mason Gamage, were having a party. It was a night of Lucky Strikes, pipes, Stan Freeberg records and powerful amber liquid poured over ice in tall glasses. Gamage, fresh out of the U.S. Coast Guard, was a sailor, and he surfed. Night turned into day, and apparently trying to ease his hangover, Gamage convinced my father that it would be fun to paddle out into the stormy brown Atlantic. And so they did, each on a 13-foot wooden board; once out in the ocean, they surfed. It’s hard to comprehend the story—the water would have been very cold. Still, for my father that foray was the start of what became a passionate avocation. As veteran surfer Mike Clark says, “Once you get salt water in your veins, it is hard to stay away from it.”

In 1950, my father forsook his beloved beach boy lifestyle in Tidewater to fly F-86’s out of Kimpo in Korea. He returned about five years later and began his career in the insurance industry. And he resumed surfing. He met my mother, Ann Meredith Stewart, in 1956 and they spent their first date sanding old varnish off his Tom Blake surfboard at a place near Rudee Inlet on the oceanfront’s south end, near the Sandbox—a café and home for years to the annual and infamous Subway party. It was an epic, if charming, faux pas.

“At that time,” says Mike Clark, “there was no inlet and no pier at the south end. We could walk over to Croatan at low tide. Later, in the 1950s, I remember the building of the steel pier 15 blocks south of the wooden pier. You can tell a real native when they say wooden pier; that is how we referred to them—steel and wood.” Clark adds, “Shooting the pier was a hoot. My dad bought our first board from Dawson Taylor at Fuel Feed Hardware, a Hobie. It was before the Smith & Holland shop opened. My brother and I shared the board.” Norfolk native Scott McCasky, a competitive surfer for more than four decades, also has fond recollections of the south end’s golden, post-war era: “Every day you were there, surfing at the steel pier gave you the undeniable feeling you were in the right place at the right time.”

Pete Smith, age 71, is a mid-century “grom”—an old-timer who still retains a youthful stoke. In recent months he has shared with me many anecdotes about the early days of surfing in Virginia Beach and the ways in which the scene has changed. Looking at photos from the 1960s, he can name practically every individual who surfed that decade. In a shot taken in front of the erstwhile Mariner Hotel, Smith points out the different types of boards displayed by the diverse group of surfers in the picture: The first generation of wooden hollow boards are held by the guys in the back row, and the new fiberglass boards are held by the guys kneeling in the front row. Three Hollands are in the photograph, along with Scott Taylor, Frank Butler, Skip Rawls, Snooker Turner and Babe Braithwaite’s son, Forbes. Says Smith: “The early years were amazing, because there was just so much community stoke and you knew everybody. It was a really good vibe. There weren’t any crowds; you’d be looking for people to surf with just to have someone to hoot and holler with. It was that transformative era where the old wooden boards were still around but the modern fiberglass boards were starting to show up. It was just a really special time.”

Significantly, a Californian named Les Arndt, then stationed at Fort Story, is also in the group picture. According to Forbes Braithwaite, Arndt was from Malibu and worked for top board maker Hap Jacobs before coming east for his military duty. “Arndt was driving past one day with another soldier,” says Braithwaite, “and saw me going surfing, carrying Scott Taylor’s balsa-wood board. He yelled, ‘Hey kid where’d you get that surfboard?’” Arndt himself recollects that Forbes was about 12 at the time, and was walking across Atlantic Avenue at 49th Street. The chance meeting prompted Arndt to spend two years with Virginia Beach surfers, especially Bob Holland and his family, during which time he helped to get “modern Malibu surfing started in Virginia Beach,” according to Arndt.

How? Thanks to Arndt’s West Coast connections, the group started importing and selling what was at that time a rare and exotic item—modern fiberglass boards from California. The group stored them in a garage owned by Forbes Braithwaite’s mother. In 1963, Pete Smith and Bob Holland opened the area’s first dedicated surf shop—Smith & Holland—one of the first businesses of its kind on the East Coast.

Not long after, Smith wrote a letter to Surfer Magazine, in California, trumpeting the burgeoning surfing scene in Virginia Beach. He wrote the note on the letterhead of the Golf Ranch Motel on Laskin Road, which was situated on the east end of Birdneck golf course and owned, along with the Mariner, by Pete’s uncle, John Smith. Pete worked there. John Severson, then editor of Surfer Magazine, showed the letter to Hobie Alter who was the top California board maker at that time. Some months later, Alter showed up at the Golf Ranch Motel on a day when Pete was working. For Virginia Beach surfing, that was a monumental moment. Alter was on the East Coast pushing his boards, and he negotiated a deal with Smith and Holland to carry his boards exclusively.

The early 1960s were a pivotal time in modern surfing. In addition to the new availability of Hobie Alter’s boards on the East Coast, the first East Coast surf contest was started in 1962 on Gilgo Beach on Long Island. Bob Holland drove a group of Virginia Beach surfers to New York for the event, including Butch Maloney, Gary Rice and an 11-year-old talent named Ronnie Mellot, a future Golden Gloves Army boxing champ, local board shaper and all around wild man. Many of the VB guys took trophies at Gilgo—they dominated the field. In 1963, with cooperation from the local chamber of commerce, Holland, Maloney and Pete Smith managed to move the pro-amateur surf contest to Virginia Beach, re-naming it the Virginia Beach Surfing Festival. Two years later they changed the name again—to the East Coast Surfing Championships (ECSC)—and 2012 will mark the event’s 50th year. It is the East Coast’s longest running surfing competition.

In the ECSC’s early years, it attracted world-class surfers such as David Nuuhiwa, Corky Carroll and Mike Tabeling, along with the best locals. Pete Smith would preside from atop a simple lifeguard stand at the steel pier site with a clipboard, a visor and a microphone, uttering witty, surf-speak-laced Southernisms in his consummate, slow-mo Tidewater accent. “It was just a special time in those early days of the ECSC,” recalls Smith, “when some of the real hot West Coast and Floridian surfers started coming to the contest.

It was such a thrill meeting some of those guys we’d seen in all the magazines, and getting to see them surf.”

By the middle of the 1960s, the West Coast-informed surf boom was fully realized here in the East. In 1965, the acclaimed documentary surf film “Endless Summer” opened at the madly mod, and very much missed, Buckminster Fuller-designed Virginia Beach Dome. Filmmaker Bruce Brown traveled with the movie and narrated live in his laconic surf-speak style as the mellow twang of The Sandals’ soundtrack played from a reel-to-reel tape machine. My mother and father were there on opening night. My mother recalls Bob Holland’s youngest son, Johnny, zooming around barefoot on his skateboard, the newest must-have accoutrement of surf culture. Johnny would become a standout competitive surfer, competing in the World Surfing Championships in California in 1966. He was one of the most gifted wave riders this area ever produced.

In June of 1968, Sports Illustrated did a cover story titled “Surfing’s East Coast Boom.” The cover photo, taken from the steel pier looking south, shows visiting California and Hawaii legend Phil Edwards gracefully negotiating the curl of a fun-looking righthander breaking in the once sacred (now mythical) 75-yard zone between the north side of the First Street jetty and the south side of the pier. (Roughly 10 years later, the rickety steel pier would catch fire and be demolished, prompting locals to rename the very popular surfing spot as The Jetty or simply First Street. Surfing Magazine once referred to the area as a “a two-block surfing insane asylum.”) Edwards is quoted in the article, speaking to the core of what surfing is about—beyond the contests, sponsorships and commercialism: “I think maybe the best surfer in the world right now is some little kid whose name nobody knows. . . who is riding out there by himself; locked in some curl somewhere, having the ride of his young life. . . God, it’s the neatest thing.”

By the start of the existentially ambiguous 1970s, most surfers had switched to the modern, high-performance board designs, and the shortboard crew was dominating the scene at both the steel and wooden piers, and in the sometimes world-class conditions of the Outer Banks. Local board shaper Bob White then designed his Wave Riding Vehicles—space-aged teardrop foils that drew a generational and stylistic line in the sand between the older traditionalists and the young dudes enthralled by the radical new direction.

Jimbo Brothers—lithe, flame-haired and scat talking—was the best of the young guard. He would dominate local and interstate competitions in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Part prodigy and part Dickensian ragamuffin, Brothers was a sponsored team rider in the seventh grade who had been profiled in Surfer Magazine by the time he was 10. “One year the newspaper published a picture of me with my trophies, and I was struggling to hold up the silver bowl and the wooden plaque at the same time,” says Brothers, who is now in his mid-50s. “The caption read, ‘Jimbo had more trouble with his loot than he did with the waves.’”

Roughly a decade later, a 6-foot-4-inch paddling machine named Wes Laine brought even more serious recognition to Virginia Beach and East Coast surfing. Laine placed ninth in the world on the pro tour circuit in both 1983 and 1985. “Wes was the first Virginia Beach guy to make it in the big time,” says Tim Sullivan, a local surfer turned guitarist for the New York City-based band, Supertones. “He paved the way for other East Coasters, and even 10-time world champ Kelly Slater.”

Competitions are cool but do not figure large in the lives of most surfers, who surf for the sake of surfing—art for art’s sake. Still, owing to Laine’s success, there was a sharp rise in competitive intensity among surfers at the beach in the 1980s and 1990s. It was not unusual for local surfers to explore not-too-distant big-wave training grounds such as Puerto Rico and Barbados, following early 1970s pioneers like Marc Theriault and Ronnie Mellot.

What informed much of this cocky ambition was a revolution in hardware. Just as punk rock shouldered aside beach music and the Shag (for some people), a new board design known as the Thruster turned the surfing world upside down. This revolutionary three-finned, “squashtail” template, developed by Australian powerhouse Simon Anderson, would dominate surfboard design for the next 25 years.

The late 1980s new wave was exemplified by the freeform genius of Pete Smith’s son, Pete Smith Jr., whom most everyone called “young Pete Smith.” As Les Shaw, the former owner of Wave Riding Vehicles, says, “You gotta understand, the most unsung raw talent to ever come out of this area was young Pete Smith, with that stream of consciousness surfing style he had. He was just light years beyond everyone else in his approach.” There were other standouts: Jon Klientop and Charles Kirkley dominated local Eastern Surfing Association contests as well as ECSC events. And the 1990s introduced a new crop of upstarts, including Chris Culpen and Jason Borte.

And what of today’s young surfers? Interestingly, a free-thinking new crew of stylists would seem to at least potentially defy Oscar Wilde’s maxim that youth is wasted on the young. Semi-pro longboarder Cam Fullmer, who is 17 and a senior at Norfolk Academy, for example, grew up at the north end and was taught by resident local Bud Easton, whose daughter Kate is—like Fullmer—a team rider for Freedom Surfshop. Fullmer and his tight circle are primarily longboarders, a neo-retro trend that leaves many diehard Thruster-era types in a state of bemused stupefaction. That’s because the longboard is, to all appearances, an aquatic reversion to the horse and buggy. But given the consistently modest surf at Virginia Beach, it is both efficient and functional. And there are other implications—philosophical and cultural—that reach down into the core of the user. “It’s less jock-like, maybe,” says Fullmer of the longboard wave-riding technique.

His is a teen milieu that seeks to retrieve from the past in order to move smoothly into the future. There is ingrained in many young surfers an appreciation for tradition. Fullmer speaks reverently about local, old-school veterans like Bob Holland, Mike Clark, Mike Kalana and Bobby Holland Jr.: “Mike is—what?—like in his 70s?” says Fullmer. Gesticulating with glancing, flat-hand motions the way all real surfers do, he adds: “I mean. . . he can crank a turn; he can cross-step to the nose; he can ride in the pocket and work it with his knees and just ride a wave like its supposed to be ridden…ride a board like its supposed to be ridden. Those guys are always the best ones to talk to. I’d rather talk to them than 99 percent of the surfers my age. They always have something good to say about surfing or about life.” Glancing around at the radically changing psychic contour of the oceanfront, he says: “Old Virginia Beach must have been just the coolest thing.”

He would get no disagreement on that point from Dave Shotten, who opened the Freedom Surf shop in 2005. Shotten, who by his own admission is an eternal grom in a 44-year-old body, laments the fact that contemporary surf culture has become homogenized. “It’s been diluted with Orange County propaganda that caters to a naive young audience who want conformity.” Freedom Surf sells imported boards yet sports a community vibe, selling gear relevant to the area’s surf conditions. “We are the new kids on the block,” says Shotten. “But at the same time we’ve been gifted a legacy and tradition that has been handed down from some of the original pioneers who put boards in the water in Virginia Beach. Our vision is to look back into the past and celebrate what a surf shop means. We’re about taking a different path.”

In truth, surfing at Virginia Beach has always been something of a different path. We’re not on the map of world-class surf spots, and never will be. But our surfing denizens show their sincere respect for the sea, possess a core dedication to the art form we love and stay ever vigilant for conditions that produce the best waves. •

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